Home Movies (II)

Last time I covered some Hong Kong and Asian films that I’d seen during the week. Well here are a few more, worthy of mentions to (1) remind myself that I’ve seen them, and (2) prove that I do actually blog here from time to time.

This time they were all Hong Kong movies.

Three (三人行)

Billed as a thriller, and starring two solid leads in Vicky Zhao (趙薇) and Louis Koo (古天樂), this character-study-cum-actioner revolves around a triad member being brought into a public hospital. He’s been shot in the head and should be in a coma but he’s not; the police who bring him in are edgy and arrogant, and as time goes on your realise what went down to cause the bloke to get shot in the first place. Tensions are high, a cat and mouse game plays out between the doctor, the police detective and the gangster, and apart from some weird bullet ballet bollocks toward the end, it all kind of makes sense. However, it’s not the most enthralling film I’ve seen, and to be honest there were moments where I picked up my phone to see if I had any email. Shout-out to Luvin Ho (菁瑋 / Ching Wai) for her performance as the dogsbody detective under Louis Koo. And bloody hell, but does Lam Suet (林雪) appear in every single film or what? A nice twist on his character, for a change.

Verdict: 7/10; would recommend if you’re into serious drama.

Election (黑社會)

This 2005 film is basically about the fight for the winning seat. Where is that, exactly? Only the head of all triad gangs in Hong Kong. Sought after about as much as the Iron Throne, it’s the MacGuffin that shows us what Simon Yam (任達華) will do to get it. Surrounded by some real powerhouses of HK cinema, he schemes and betrays whomever it takes to get the top spot. I can’t give away the ending, but I’m pretty sure it’s not what you're expecting. Good cast, solid drama, and a fresh look at what is shown to be a hundreds of years old system, and how it’s survived all this time. If you’re expecting knife fights by hordes of triads in the streets, then you’re going to be disappointed. However, if you’re looking for who will out-do who and how, then I can highly recommend this.

Verdict: 8/10; would recommend to everyone.

Election II (黑社會:以和爲貴)

This 2006 sequel does not disappoint. If you watched the first one and wondered why they always say ‘it’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch’, then this is for you. More scheming, but this time for a completely different reason. Once again the big chair is up for grabs, and everyone is scrambling to get it - except one. Louis Koo (古天樂)’s character just wants a quiet life, but his loyalty and his ambition for things outside of the triad life are about to make things very complicated.

Verdict: 8.5/10; would recommend if just for the final few scenes. Class.

The Vampire Clean-Up Department (救僵清道夫)

This crew in this 2017 gem do what it says on the tin: clean-up vampires and any mess they make. A team of blokes who are definitely knocking-on are holed up in the basement of the Government Hygiene Department - one of the infamous refuse collection points stationed around the city. However, open the cupboard to one side and you enter the full-on world of talismans, protection sigils, enchanted weapons, and the crematorium which also serves as a place to boil the kettle when you need tea. Poor wee Tim, an orphan, is walking home one night when he thinks he sees someone beating up an old bloke down the ginnel. He summons what little courage he has and decides to intervene. He gets as far as shouting to the assailant before the action stops and he gets a very, very good look at the vampire chomping on the old dude. He tries to make a run for it but is brought to the ground and, in best HK comedy tradition, is bitten not in the neck but on the arse.

When he wakes up he’s at home and perfectly fine after his ordeal, and a couple of strange blokes are talking to his grandmother. She seems to be nuttier than a fruitcake, calling Tim by his father’s (her son’s) name and being generally away with the faeries. Tim is later drawn into the Vampire Clean-Up Department when he determines to find out what happened and how the people know his grandmother - and his dead parents.

A little predictable but made with a lot of heart, the comedy is not too strong and the plot easy to grasp. A few times it made me laugh out loud, and then there came the inevitable Mood Whiplash as a vampire he mistakenly woke up before he could cremate it becomes endearing when it really shouldn’t. A satisfying ending and a little twist to prove what they were banging on about halfway through - it’s all done and dusted and leaves you feeling pretty upbeat.

Verdict: 9/10; would recommend if you like a bit of fun, or the prospect of Supernatural operating out of the local rubbish department with a ragtag bunch of oddities who specialise in vampires.

Golden Chicken$$$ (金雞SSS)

Now then. The first Golden Chicken (金雞) from 2002 was a semi serious affair, designed to show everyone how you may think you have it bad, but there’s always something to be done, something to make it better. This narrative is eloquently put by Kam, the ‘golden chicken’, or damn good prostitute. In the middle of getting robbed, she sits the bloke down and proceeds to tell him her story - one that mirrors the ups and downs of Hong Kong life. Golden Chicken 2 (金雞2) came along in 2003, just after SARS had hit and turned most of the country into a ghost town, where people were afraid to go out, mingle, or simply be where other people were breathing. It was a pretty bleak time for all involved, as anyone who was trying to work during that year can attest to. I said goodbye to a lovely bright young lad who wasn't even six years old, who made everyone happy during every class he was in. A bad year indeed, but that was the point of the second film. The disease and its effects may have forced Hong Kong into a tailspin, but it didn’t last long; as the film showed with as much pathos as it did parody, the can-do spirit of Hong Kong people is indomitable when there’s still money to be made. A spoof on cinematic Oscar-bait, as well as poking fun at the entire prostitution racket in HK, it dealt with the trauma and heart of HKers during the whole black time.

It wasn’t until 2014 that an update appeared. This time Kam the prostitute is struggling as the mama-san of her own brothel; profits seem to be down and she’s always having to do things that gall her just to keep going. She decides to go to Japan to see how their business seems to be booming. A lot of laughs from this one in the first hour, including Louis Koo (古天樂 - him again) playing the Shenzhen version of himself (i.e. a knock-off) to fool a rich woman into thinking she’s actually getting a bit of the movie star. The cavalier way they take the piss out of business in the Mainland, as well as tourism, the current political climate and triads in particular, made me miss HK movies and the black comedy they can come out with. The spot-on English subtitles certainly helped with this - they even managed to recreate some of the innuendos and puns.

Verdict: 9/10; would recommend if you like bawdy comedy and social commentary mixed together, with an unapologetic yet sensitive wit.

And again, that’s all the news that’s fit to print. Going to go and decide what’s next on the agenda, film-wise.


Going to the Pictures (III)

Been a bit thin on the ground recently - movies I want to see at the pictures, that is. But hey-ho- let’s go:

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales / Salazar’s Revenge (31st May 2017)

The subtitle of this changes depending on where you see it, but basically it’s the new Pirates film. Overlong, a little boring in places - I remember checking my watch about three times during the film, and the last time I did that was for Passengers. The cast were good, the action set pieces were creative, but at the end of the day it felt like the film was just going through the motions waiting for someone to do anything that would it bring it closer to achieving the plot.

Verdict: 6/10; would recommend if you’re too young to care about plot, or just a die-hard Pirates fan.

Wonder Woman (4th June 2017, 14th June 2017)

Good visuals, good cast, some great moments, some nice wrap-ups, and a tonne of stuff I won’t go into here that made it awesome to be a woman in a cinema seat for a change. I saw it twice, and while the shine was definitely off the second time, I was glad I got to see it again so I could verify how I felt the first time - and find it just as good. All I’m saying is, out of Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman had the lowest budget ($149M) but (to date) is only $100M behind Batman vs Superman in worldwide takings - and it’s still showing. I’m not the only one who voted with their dollars, then.

Verdict: 9/10; would definitely recommend to everyone.

The Mummy (15th June 2017)

I went into this hoping for a new take on the whole thing, and obviously looking forward to how Universal was going to launch a new universe. Much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) or the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), this was slated to launch a whole slew of reboots or remakes or re-imaginings of all your favourite Universal horror movies of the glorious black and white age. A solid movie, with good performances (worth seeing for Russell Crowe alone!) and good set pieces, it was only held back by the inclusion of Tom Cruise. Now don’t get me wrong; I like Tom Cruise and I like Tom Cruise movies. However, this was not a Tom Cruise movie, this was a universe-launching semi-horror, semi-action feature film, and he should not have been cast. If a near-unknown had been cast, then (a) it could have made that newbie and (b) it would have been a totally different film. It had some humour to it, it had some suspense and is definitely worth a rewatch. However, Annabelle Wallis could have carried the film without Tom Cruise, and in fact the ending would have been much more satisfying if Tom Cruise’s part had been played by a woman. Just sayin’.

Verdict: 8/10; would recommend for Russell Crowe alone. And then there’s some laughs and some scenes verging on wannabe-horror.

Baby Driver (Cineworld Unlimited Screening, 20th June 2017)

Relative unknowns, Kevin Spacey, a horde of other famous faces in the background, a killer soundtrack, the inclusion of people on opposite ends of the same disability spectrum, and some driving set pieces that will blow your mind. What else could you want? A fitting ending, a good way to tell it, and just a solid film that leaves you feeling uplifted, despite the subject matter and the carnage along the way. Thank you, Edgar Wright.

Verdict: 9/10; would definitely recommend.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (6th July 2017)

Harmless, fun, cute, accessible by a younger generation, this is a feel-good film that doesn’t want to upset people as it’s taking us through Peter Parker’s first forays as the Spider-Man. Good lines, good scenes, some nice throwbacks to the animated series, and of course it all ties in well to the other MCU films. Michael Keaton is awesome as always, and everything pootles along easily enough. Didn’t check my watch once. And just for once, we didn’t have to sit through Uncle Ben dying for the billionth time.

Verdict: 7/10; would recommend if you're bored. Best end-end Marvel credits scene of all time.

That’s all the news that’s fit to print. There are a tonne of blockbusters supposedly coming out soon, so hopefully we’ll be able to go back to going every Thursday night, instead of every other week.


Rogue Events is no more

For those of you who, like me, enjoy a good convention (“con”) now and again, the news that Rogue Events have closed down will come as a surprise.

Well, it would if you’ve never been to a Rogue Events con.

Ask anyone who’s ever attended one of their cons and you’ll probably hear something like ‘the guests were amazing but JFC they couldn’t organise their way out of a paper bag’. I’ve been to 2 of their cons - both Asylum (the Supernatural ones). They ran others too, for Arrow, Once Upon a Time, Vampire Diaries, etc. I have to say, because I didn’t need any autographs, photographs, meet n’ greets or basically anything other than sitting my arse down and watching guests on stage, I saw lots of good stuff and apart from not really knowing where or when things were happening, it wasn’t too bad.

However, I was witness to the appalling almost-organisation of the whole shebang. For anyone who had bought autographs, photo ops, 1 to 1s or similar activities, it was a logistical nightmare. No formal queueing system, so way to tell what the unofficial queue of self-organising fans was for, no word as to where the evening events were being held or when, charging people extra to see the evening entertainment, not telling people when or where to pick up their photos - and that was just what I saw and heard whilst talking to other fans.

Now that they’ve officially folded it’s left of lot of fans out of pocket - many of whom didn’t have a particularly deep pocket to begin with. The question of whether Rogue Events broke UK law in selling a product they knew they couldn’t deliver is one for the courts, and the insolvency firm who are no doubt already hard at work going through WCM Events’ debts. What that means in real terms for people who bought tickets and now have nothing is that, a few years from now when all the large creditors and overheads have been settled, they may get something acknowledging the debt they are still owed. By then it’s anyone’s guess if there’s anything left to reimburse them with.

Enter Star Fury Conventions. They’ve been running cons for 20 years in the UK, and by all accounts are pretty good at it. They’re professional, organised, and more importantly, they understand customer service and How to Make Money and Help People. Take for instance this whole Rogue Events debacle. As their Supernatural con, Asylum 19, has apparently been summarily cancelled (I say apparently as no-one has had official notification; all there is to go on is the official website), Star Fury’s rival Cross Roads 2018 event has experienced a surge in ticket sales. That would be enough for some. But some bright spark at Star Fury has decided that, in order to help fans let down by Rogue, they will give each fan who had bought an Asylum ticket one free autograph and photo op at their own Cross Roads 2018 event. Yes, you still have to pay for entry. But being able to go to an alternative event and still get some of what you wanted is better than no con at all. And if it makes you life-long fans of Star Fury Conventions along the way? So be it.

I would say I’m sorry that Rogue Events has gone. But I’m not. It’s natural business selection; poor management can only get you so far.


Home movies

Ok, not ‘home movies’ as in I’ve made something, but ‘home movies’ as in movies I’ve been watching at home.

There’s been cock-all on at the pictures recently - we’ve watched everything that’s on current release, would you believe. Well not everything, seeing as we only get ‘general release’ films, not the legion of alternative content you get if you live in London. Why The Village gets all the extras and the rest of the UK doesn’t is a mystery. No it’s not - it’s yet another example of how the UK is run for the good of London Village.

I digress.

So I’m at home and I’m looking at the stack of cheap DVDs I recently bought whilst in Hong Kong, and I decide I’m going to have a crack at them. The first one I open is An Inspector Calls from 2015. This should be a retelling / remake of the infamous play by J.B. Priestley, but seeing as it’s also a Chinese New Year comedy, it makes for some very black comedy. Louis Koo (古天樂) is the mysterious Inspector who arrives as Eric Tsang (曾志偉) and onscreen wife Teresa Mo (毛舜筠) are trying to get a party sorted for their debutant daughter. Things progress as they should - apart from the usual partial slapstick / bordering-on-bloopers fun that is a CNY movie. Diaries secreting themselves around Louis Koo’s person, his foot balancing on air, Eric’s screeching getting higher and higher as he gets more and more stressed - and all the time they do very well to keep the face of the deceased obscured in each and every flashback. The first hour flies by and it’s suitably raucous and thought-provoking. However, it dips a little in the third act, only to be rescued by the entirely absurd and completely out-of-the-blueness of Donnie Yen (甄子丹) turning up as the singing quartet at the actual wedding reception. Wait, did I type ‘quartet’? Yes, I did. A little CGI has him in four different haircuts, dressed in identical red outfits that wouldn’t be out of place in a Grease dance contest, bobbing (and actually really singing) along to ‘Sherry Baby’. I shit you not. A good ending, and a surprise ‘guest star’ right at the end was also a chuckle - until the very end curtain, as it were. Nice.

The next one was actually a Taiwanese film called Godspeed (一路順風). Billed as a black comedy / drama, it gave me the confidence to settle in for a good time. And the opening was good. But ai-ya, you thought Quentin Tarantino knew how to swear. He has nothing on these guys. Unfortunately, after the first twenty minutes I was losing interest. It was beginning to plod, the black comedy was so subtle as to be non-existent, and to be honest, I watched the next thirty-five minutes of the film on x3. After fifty-five minutes I gave up. Just not for me, I guess.

I went back to good old-fashioned wewungwung, with Wing Chun, the Michelle Yeoh (楊紫瓊) powerhouse of gratuitous fight scenes, poor wire work and lamentable film restoration - and of course, wonderfully noisy and terrifically well-placed bouts of wewungwung. Yuen King-Dan (苑瓊丹) (yay!) plays her hard-nosed, shrewd businesswoman (and cougar?) of a sister. Even Donnie Yen turns up as the hapless idiot (of lesser gung fu, of course) who doesn’t recognise Michelle Yeoh from when they were wee, and he had a tremendous crush on her.

What I like about this film is the idea that Michelle Yeoh, as a pretty fictionalised version of the actual woman Wing Chun, is fed up of stereotypes and just gets on with life. The fact that her and her sister’s tofu stall is going down the crapper because she refuses to play the beautiful bimbo just to separate all the male customers from their coins is brilliant - when a new ‘tofu beauty’ turns up to ‘man’ the stall, they’re in the money again but now her first love mistakes the air-head for her. For me this movie ticks a lot of boxes - a female lead who is just sick of people’s shit and doesn’t see why she has to take it any more, gratuitous fight scenes well-executed, people bowing down when they bloody well should, and of course a bit of Shakespearian mix-up farce. A fantastic night in.

Hmm… What else? Ah yes. More wewungwung in the form of 14 Blades. Vicky Zhao (趙薇) is impressive here, as the daughter of the traders who have the bad luck to cross paths with a wounded Donnie Yen. The Emperor’s best secret service man, he gets on the worst side of both a corrupt court official and the dude’s enemy - such is life. Making a run for it, he takes Vicky Zhao as a hostage and plots how to orchestrate avenging the corruption and of course clearing his name. These two actors are really good together - the moment where she lumps him over the head with a log is absolutely priceless, as is his reaction. In fact they get along so badly (and therefore like a house on fire) that the last act is heart-breaking. However, the very last scene will make up for some of that, in a way. Wewungung with chicken bones (yes, chicken bones), bath-houses and shiny swords, and two characters who are both as stubborn and unrepentant as each other. Yes, I like.

It would be remiss of me not to mention another Chinese New Year movie, this time from 2011. All’s Well, Ends Well 2011 (最強囍事) (not to be confused with all the other All’s Well, Ends Well films, made in 1993, 1997, 2009, 2010, and 2012, or even the original Shakespeare All’s Well That Ends Well!). Louis Koo (him again) plays a dude who pretends to be gay so he can shift more make-up stock and keep his TV show status as one of the top cosmetic experts in Asia. Cecilia Cheung (張栢芝) is the plain-Jane assistant who ‘isn’t like other girls’, and therefore catches the eye of billionaire playboy Chapman To (杜汶澤). Turns out they’re both just looking for love (go figure; it is a CNY film, after all). Add into the mix a rich HK businessman whose girlfriend from north of the border gets into the cosmetics industry, and you have an almost slapstick comedy of Louis Koo, Chapman To and Louis’ make-up mate Donnie Yen either looking for love, knowing it’s under their nose but not being able to do anything about it, or just plain desperate for someone crazy enough to put up with them. It should be boring - but it’s a laugh riot. Your mileage may vary, but when I see Carina Lau taking the piss out of flaky writers (some of the music was familiar - was that Kelly Chen’s ‘umbrella memories’ music from And I Hate You So?), and Louis Koo hamming it up with expert comic timing, and Donnie Yen taking the piss out of the film industry - and letting other do it Ip Man (the film, people, the film!), it makes me chuckle. There were bits I nearly died laughing - Grandma starting off the circular gossip gag that ends in her spitting out her tea; the ‘bitch’ song in the office; the mahjong rounds and the knife, the bits where it seems people are barely acting at all - a very good time was had, to the point where I had to wind a few bits back to watch again.

However, it showed a level of maturity that I wasn’t expecting from a CNY film. When Cecilia Cheung desperately keeps smiling through the obvious soul-shredding embarrassment and mortification of a vicious power-hungry woman tearing her to shreds for being ‘common’, when Carina Lau tells Donnie Yen she’s getting married and forces him to SMILE and congratulate her - and he does like he’s covering up the fact that he’s going to be physically ill, when Louis Koo has to stand by and watch Cecilia be loved-up by Chapman To, knowing that he doesn’t really deserve he like a certain somebody would - there are lots of moments where you just get slapped by Mood Whiplash and realise you've been caught out by the funnies and the falls, and didn't realise the underlying current was about to kill you with unfairness.

That being said - loved it. It’s silly, it’s frivolous, it’s disposable - but of course it is; it’s a fucking CNY film, people. It’s like Cannonball Run meets Charlie’s Angels for 2011. And yes, it’s going on the pile of DVDs that will cheer me up when it’s grey and raining outside, and I just want to something silly to laugh at.

The thing is, I’ve missed that particular brand of HK goofiness you only get in a CNY film. I love the in-jokes, the name-dropping, the quick insults and witty banter. I miss knowing that pretty much 10% of the film is just bloopers they left in because they didn’t have time to reshoot. I love having so many famous faces in one place. I miss the timeless fun of just letting everything pass you by to enjoy barely two hours of indulgent fun.

So I guess that’s all the news that’s fit to print. I think tomorrow night I’ll open... Well, I suppose I’ll find out tomorrow.

Peach and lube, everyone. Peach and frelling lube.

Holidaying in Hong Kong (I)

Here we are again - I'm in Hong Kong on holiday. I arrived late Saturday afternoon, went straight to a friend's apartment, got showered and changed, and then flew out the door straight to dinner. From there we went to the usual haunts: Carnegie's, The White Stag - and then back to my other mate's flat where I'm crashing for the week.

The first thing I did Sunday? High tea with friends (lots of them!) and then the new 'Wonder Woman' film. (The film deserves a complete post by itself.) A lot of tea later, and it was already Monday. That meant shopping for Hong Kong films on DVD, yam cha with a friend, then the pub quiz in the evening. Getting lightly inebriated and trying our best without the aid of electronic devices was a lot of fun I haven't had in a long time. It felt good.

Today - ah yes. I found a couple of books I wanted in the Hong Kong Book Centre in Central - nice to know the place is still there. They had exactly 1 book on Cantonese; everything else now is Mandarin and it's infuriating. However, a couple of other books purchased and I was happy. I rode the tram in and out of Central (one day I'll get on at Sheung Wan and just go all the way down to Shau Kei Wan - just because I can) and thought about watching an HK movie in an HK theatre.

A quick look at the run-down for all cinemas on the island - and for Kowloon - yielded just 1 HK film on release right now. That's right - 1. Do you remember the days when 1 or 2 would come out every week? I do. It seems in the 3.5 years I've been away, the HK film industry has downsized roughly 90%. How and why has this happened? A lot to do with actors' contracts and how money now comes from the mainland. Off they go and make mainland movies in Mandarin, leaving the HK film scene pretty desolate.

I'm not happy about this turn of events. How it's come about I have no idea - except for the clues left by US films that have opened worldwide recently. I'm talking about Ghost in the Shell (2017), xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017), Allied (2016), Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016), and of course Star Trek Beyond (2016).

These films have been backed by giants Huahua Media and some others by the Shanghai Film Group, as well as a handful of American production companies as usual. China currently has a restriction on foreign movies; they can only make up 25% of the market in the mainland. (This may increase to 40% in 2017.) Being backed by powerhouses such as Huahua Media, and a few small adjustments to where some of the scenes are shot or processed, means that movies are no longer subject to this mainland restriction. Hong Kong has no such restriction; they can and do show as many non-HK films as they want, when they want.

The wider implications of this are interesting; if you can now show more US movies in the mainland anyway, and the spread of mainland money and production companies into America means that more movies are free of any restrictions on top of this, doesn't that mean that mainland audiences will be witness to a lot more foreign movies? (Probably heavily censored of course, as in the case of Chow Yun Fat being mostly removed from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, for making it look like 'Chinese' people can be the bad guys if they want.)

Doesn't this also mean that China's film industry may slow down, due to their production companies bank-rolling foreign films, but also finding less of a need to keep blockbusters in the theatres?

So why filtch all the talent from Hong Kong to make mainland movies? Is it the agents' faults, sending their stars over the border, or is it in contracts with studio bosses, or is it just that the films over there are better paid?

Whatever the reason, Hong Kong films are on the decline, just a decade after Infernal Affairs single-handedly saved the local market and paved the way for recent hits such as Cold War 1 and 2 (and where's my part 3, anyway?).

This means that, for me on holiday in HK, I have 1 film to watch, and even that is on limited release because it's nearly at the end of its window. Films don't hang about here - they're changed pretty quickly. Whether or not this is to keep people's attention, or just a case of HK having a population of 7 million and everyone who's going to watch it has done so in the first 2 weeks anyway, is debatable.

I was really hoping for a few HK movies before I have to fly home, but it doesn't look like there are any to be found. I will keep searching, but it's not looking good.

In other news, we have dinner tonight and then I have more sourcing and shopping to do tomorrow before we go to Happy Valley to see the races. Believe it or not, although I lived in HK for 11 years I've only ever been to the races once before, and that was at Sha Tin.

So while I get in all the food and the film shopping and a few work books to keep my Cantonese from being completely forgotten, I'll keep any eye on the cinema here just in case something open Thursday night I can see.

That's pretty much all the news that's fit to print. See - I told you I'd try to blog more.

Soopy-twist, everyone, at least for now.